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Brookhaven’s leaders deny charge in ethics response — Official version at odds with statements

The City of Brookhaven’s response to an ongoing ethics charge over possible illegal meetings contradicts statements made by its own officials.

The city met its June 4 deadline for responding to the Mississippi Ethics Commission with a 31-page packet that denies written statements by its own officials, leaves one allegation unanswered and questions the conduct of The Daily Leader reporter who stumbled upon the meeting in question and filed the complaint. The newspaper has filed a rebuttal to the city’s claims.

The city’s response denies the existence of a swimming pool committee of the Brookhaven Board of Aldermen consisting of Ward 1 Aldermen Dorsey Cameron, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Snider and Ward 6 Alderman Shelley Harrigill. City attorney Joe Fernald claims the three aldermen who met behind closed doors with the city engineer and an architect on May 1 to discuss a swimming pool and community center feasibility study “were not appointed as a standing subcommittee of the board.”

If they were meeting as a committee, state law says it should have been open to the public. A Daily Leader reporter was denied entry to the meeting, prompting the ethics complaint.

But other city officials’ — including Harrigill’s — written comments contradict the claim by Fernald. Brookhaven City Clerk Samantha Melancon said via text message the day the meeting occurred the three aldermen were a “subcommittee of the board studying the feasibility of community center and pool.” The Daily Leader submitted screenshots of the text conversation to the ethics commission as part of its rebuttal.

On May 6, Harrigill responded to a citizen’s question on Ward 2 Alderman Shannon Moore’s Facebook page by saying the May 1 meeting “was not secret — this was a committee that was recommended by the mayor and the board of Aldermen and approved on the record…” Harrigill made the comments after Moore shared The Daily Leader’s May 5 story on the improper meeting. The Daily Leader submitted screenshots of the conversation to the ethics commission as part of its rebuttal.

Also, a May 14 letter sent to the city about the study from architectural firm Eley Guild Hardy — who worked with the committee to develop the study — describes the architect’s work: “After meeting with the subcommittee to discuss the wants and needs of the community…” The Daily Leader submitted a copy of the architect’s letter to the ethics commission as part of its rebuttal.

Additionally, when the pool study was finally presented at a public board meeting on May 15, city engineer Mike McKenzie introduced the findings by reminding aldermen they had appointed a committee the previous year. He said the committee met three times to discuss the feasibility study. The Daily Leader submitted recorded audio of McKenzie’s address to the ethics commission as part of its rebuttal.

Through the city’s claim the swimming pool committee does not exist, it also declines to respond to the newspaper’s allegation proper notice of the May 1 meeting was not provided. Leonard Van Slyke, a First Amendment and media law attorney who works with the Mississippi Press Association, maintains the committee meets the description of the Mississippi Open Meetings Act’s description of a “public body” subject to the law’s notice and openness requirements, as the law states a public body is any “executive or administrative board, commission, authority, council, department, agency, bureau or any other policymaking entity, or committee thereof…”

The city also disputes the The Daily Leader’s allegation that proper notice of the meeting was not given because the committee’s meeting times were not posted on the blackboard in the lobby of the Lincoln County-Brookhaven Government Complex.

The city says it uses a corkboard across the hallway from Mayor Joe Cox’s office to post public notices, not the blackboard — but Melancon said via text message on May 4 the city utilizes the blackboard in the lobby to post notice of special-called meetings. The Daily Leader submitted screenshots of the conversation to the ethics commission as part of its rebuttal.

The city’s response also states Harrigill said she was misquoted in the newspaper’s account of how aldermen met with a planning firm to discuss the city’s comprehensive plan. Harrigill had previously told the newspaper that aldermen met in small groups to avoid having a quorum of members present while developing the city’s comprehensive plan.

Without a quorum the meetings were not open to the public, but the Supreme Court has ruled that officials can not meet in small groups specifically to avoid a quorum.

But the newspaper has recorded audio of Harrigill making the comment. The audio was submitted to the ethics commission as part of its rebuttal.

Finally, the city claims The Daily Leader reporter who asked to attend the closed-door meeting on May 1 behaved aggressively and inappropriately, and the reporter’s conduct was part of the reason access to the committee meeting was denied.

The newspaper denied the claims in its rebuttal, believing them to be both fictitious and irrelevant to the open meetings complaint.

The ethics commission can hold a hearing or use an independent hearing officer to determine if a law has been violated, and if so, what penalty should be imposed, if any.